Elder abuse: Pinker vs Strunk & White

Steven Pinker starts The Sense of Style with this salute to Strunk & White

I love style manuals. Ever since I was assigned Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in an introductory psychology course, the writing guide has been among my favorite literary genres. It’s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the craft of writing. It’s also that credible guidance on writing must itself be well written, and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice. William Strunk’s course notes on writing, which his student E. B. White turned into their famous little book, was studded with gems of self-exemplification such as “Write with nouns and verbs,” “Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end,” and best of all, his prime directive, “Omit needless words.”

Then he takes his gloves off

Strunk and White, for all their intuitive feel for style, had a tenuous grasp of grammar. They misdefined terms such as phrase, participle, and relative clause, and in steering their readers away from passive verbs and toward active transitive ones they botched their examples of both. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground, for instance, is not in the passive voice, nor does The cock’s crow came with dawn contain a transitive verb. Lacking the tools to analyze language, they often struggled when turning their intuitions into advice, vainly appealing to the writer’s “ear.” And they did not seem to realize that some of the advice contradicted itself: “Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice” uses the passive voice to warn against the passive voice.

to smack them across their smackers

Strunk and White, writing in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, condemned then-new verbs like personalize, finalize, host, chair, and debut, and warned writers never to use fix for “repair” or claim for “declare.” Worse, they justified their peeves with cockamamie rationalizations. The verb contact, they argued, is “vague and self-important . Do not contact people; get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, or meet them.” But of course the vagueness of to contact is exactly why it caught on: sometimes a writer doesn’t need to know how one person will get in touch with another, as long as he does so. Or consider this head-scratcher, concocted to explain why a writer should never use a number word with people, only with persons: “If of ‘six people’ five went away, how many people would be left? Answer: one people.” By the same logic, writers should avoid using numbers with irregular plurals such as men, children, and teeth (“ If of ‘six children’ five went away . . .”). In the last edition published in his lifetime , White did acknowledge some changes to the language, instigated by “youths” who “speak to other youths in a tongue of their own devising: they renovate the language with a wild vigor, as they would a basement apartment.” White’s condescension to these “youths” (now in their retirement years) led him to predict the passing of nerd, psyched, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky, all of which have become entrenched in the language. The graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens come not just from an underappreciation of the fact of language change but from a lack of reflection on their own psychology. As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline— the illusion of the good old days.

Did I mention that they’re old?

Strunk was born in 1869, and today’s writers cannot base their craft exclusively on the advice of a man who developed his sense of style before the invention of the telephone (let alone the Internet), before the advent of modern linguistics and cognitive science, before the wave of informalization that swept the world in the second half of the twentieth century.

Especially when they’re delusional.

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